Inside Dapper Dan and Gucci’s Harlem atelier

March 26, 2018 GMT

NEW YORK — From the outside, the brownstone in Central Harlem looks like any other building on the block. But enter through the ground-floor door, pass through the red velvet curtains and you will find yourself among roaring jaguars, long-tailed dragons and hip-hop greats from the ’80s and ’90s, including LL Cool J, Salt-N-Pepa, Rakim and Eric B, the Fat Boys and Jay-Z.

Welcome to the appointment-only atelier of the couturier Daniel Day, better known as Dapper Dan, and the luxury label Gucci. Their joint venture opened in January, following years of mutual admiration and imitation.

“I was a silent partner for so many years,” said Day, who operated a boutique on 125th Street that often kept 24-hour days and was a favorite stop for rappers, boxers and gangsters, including KRS-One, Mike Tyson and Alberto Martinez, also known as Alpo, for a decade starting in 1982.

Day freely (and without permission) used the logo prints of companies like Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Gucci to create custom clothing items and objects, including car interiors and boxing trunks. He faced multiple lawsuits from luxury brands that claimed he had violated their copyrights, and by 1992, after a raid on his shop led by Fendi (and one of its lawyers, Sonia Sotomayor), Day decided not to reopen his boutique.

Last year, at a fashion show in Italy, Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci, showed a jacket that resembled one Day had made in 1989. Gucci called it an “homage” after a number of critics derided the design as appropriative. Then, in September, the men announced their joint venture.

Already, pieces from Day’s partnership with Gucci have shown up on Salma Hayek, who wore a pink top and skirt with “Dapper Dan” spelled across the back to the Vanity Fair Oscars party, and on DJ Khaled, who showed off a beige tracksuit in photos and videos of him and Diddy on Instagram.

“We created this universe of culture that came out of Harlem, and it was parallel to this universe that was coming out of Europe,” Day said. “And then this amazing man comes along, Alessandro Michele, and because of him, because of his appreciation of culture and of everybody’s contribution to culture, he made it possible for these parallel universes to come together.” He added: “Gucci took it to the 23rd century.”

Gucci found and decorated the three-story space on Lenox Avenue in consultation with Day. The ground floor features the main showroom and fitting area; the second floor is reserved for VIP customers like Jay-Z and Beyoncé; and the basement is for production.

“I would classify what I had back in the day as the third-floor, and now I’m on the roof,” Day said, comparing the store he ran decades ago to this one. “What we have here is the finished product of what I was trying to do there.”

Since the early days of his business, Day has maintained a specific approach to greeting customers.

“Luxury stores in the past didn’t treat people of color with the dignity I think they deserve,” he said. “I would be sitting over here and when I spotted them I would jump up to show how enthusiastic I am and run to the door. Give them my signature smile. Open the door for them, welcome them in, ask them how they’ve been.”

He added that he sometimes slips a comment to visitors about who came in the day before — a move that makes them want to buy something flashier, more stylish or more expensive.

“Depending on their finances, they might want to go over,” Day said. “They can’t have the same. That’s out. You cannot be Rick Ross tomorrow. No. Rick wouldn’t like that.”

That is where some of the details come into play.

First, there are the many fabric options. Gucci produces all of the fabrics, and some are exclusive to Dapper Dan.

“A woman can get dressed up and look pretty as hell, but when she puts on that lipstick, there’s something about that,” he said. “That lipstick is like the introduction to that smile that’s getting ready to come. That’s what the fabrics are. An introduction to something that’s happening.”

He said the most popular design is the double-G logo. And within that, a certain color is trending.

“A lot of people go to the pink first,” Day said. “This is the age of daring. Harlem is really daring now. Pink has come back. But a lot of the rappers didn’t know that the most popular person in Harlem, our champion Sugar Ray Robinson, had a pink Cadillac, pink gators and a pink outfit.”

Does he have a favorite fabric?

“They’re all my favorite, depending on where I’m going and what I need to represent when I get there,” Day said. “I went to a hip-hop club once, and I wore a suit and tie. Everybody had on a jersey. I felt like Mr. Rogers. People were asking me directions. ‘Where’s the bathroom?’ I felt so disconnected. I said that will never happen again. I have to be adaptable.”

After choosing a fabric, customers can add on appliqués to give their outfits a custom twist. But there is another use for these unique touches.

“When I was making Gucci back in the day, I would get seven months,” Day said. “After that, the people I was selling to, this underground economy, they would send one of my pieces to China, recreate it and send it back.”

He found that adding custom touches to his garments kept the counterfeiters at bay.

“The more embellishments associated with the article, the least likely they are to come behind it the way I’ve done it,” Day said. “The fly-by-nighters, the bootleggers, can’t come behind those details, the appliqués, ornament buttons, trimmings.”

Then comes the custom tailoring. At some point during a customer’s visit, Day said, “I’ll slip in, ‘Everything in your mind might not look good on your behind.’” He often asks guests to bring in an item they already own — one that they think fits well. Day and his team then use those proportions as guidelines for how that person wants the clothing to fall across the body.

“The thing about fitting people, is that you can measure someone, have their exact measurements but that does not tell you how they like their clothes to feel on them,” Day said. He explained that some people want a tighter fit while others prefer a looser look.

“To me, there’s no ugly,” Day said. “There are no ugly people and there’s no ugly fashion. People in power determine fashion. I just have to keep them consistent with how they want to look.”

Day speaks highly of his new partner. And he is quick to point out that his work in the past was made out of respect for labels like Gucci.

“If Gucci was a music back then, it would be jazz,” he said. “It had more rhythm to offer than the other brands. Gucci had the red and green webbing. It had the Gs. It had more colors. It had the hardware. It had more elements for me to play with. None of the other brands offered that great of a palette.”

As for future plans, Day is thinking big.

“This time next year, I hope to show you an airplane interior,” he said. “I hear they’re going to space, so maybe a rocket interior.” — (The New York Times)